This is the time that all your planning was pointing at, so let's dive right in.
Have a plan but…
...leave things open too. Avoid too many specific promises (“We will see Mickey on Tuesday, in France, at 11:00 and it will be sunny and warm”) that may only need to be broken or changed. Instead, plan to set aside some flex time each day to do kid stuff. This need not be an elaborate exercise, and tends to work when you are on the lookoout for kid-like diversions without trying too hard.
One of our own best remembered travel memories took place after a spontaneous stop in a little Lyon playground. Our oldest started babbling away in English to a little French girl who responded in babbled French before the two got on the teeter-totter together and played like old friends. The whole thing lasted about fifteen minutes. We still remember the day; we wonder if the other child does as well?
Late to get dressed, late out the door, expensive show tickets paid for though the way the day was going it was even odds that we would get to the theatre even close to on time. Phone rings, baby sitter can't make it, so we go out with the kid, hoping they'll let her in to sit on one of our laps. No time, traffic tied up, leave us off here to the taxi driver, we'll run across the park to the show. No! No time for the flowers, darn it, pick her up, we'll be late. We did stop for this picture. We were late for the show. I have forgotten what the play was even about.
Takabe, Japan We were visiting a Japanese hot spring. One of our daughters came into the communal public bath with me and some ancient tourists. Our kid, in a three year old's way, starting making duck sounds, a hearty “quack quack”. After some consultation, the old grandpas decided the best response was to squirt water through their hands in reply to each quack. By the time we were done the floor was wet and messy. Co-conspirators in a messy bathroom, we made our separate ways back to our rooms. The next day they paid no attention to us, but we shared the secret of yesterday's fun nonetheless.
Figure Out About Money
Will older kids be given an allowance? Will you allow snacks? If it is not a clean place, sort out in advance what you will and will not allow, such as only packaged foods, or will it be OK to buy from street hawkers? Arguing with your kids and trying to explain why buying half-melted ice cream in Guangzhou is no good on a busy street corner is no fun.
It works best for our kids to be very specific, though perhaps in somewhat an unconventional way. Since we'll carry whatever souvenir they buy with us, and lug it around in suitcases, we talk about not only the cost of an item, but also its size and weight. We also talk about appropriate and inappropriate things, such as whether we will be able to handle fragile things, or things with liquid, or things that need batteries or some kind of add-on unlikely to be available back home, such as a non-standard battery type.
We make clear in advance that we will not buy things made of endangered species, or things made abroad that are unsafe or not allowed into our home country. We do all this at home before leaving on the theory that if we are going to have to discus it further (or if we will have to move through some form of tantrum phase), we'd rather do that in a place where we are not paying $150 a night for the room.
At some point you'll need to decide about souvenirs, pointless postcards and probably more Pokemon junk. Try instead to collect with your kids some things that will really help them remember the trip and share it with friends back home.
How about a restaurant menu in some other language? Or, gather up some coins, some stamps, the newspaper comics in Spanish, a box (empty before going home) of cornflakes in French, the front page of a newspaper all in Korean, a sports page from London filled with soccer/football news (be careful; some “sports” newspapers in Britain also include a healthy portion of nude photos of young women who may be sports fans).
The idea is to mix the familiar with the new. Sure you tried chopsticks at the Chinese place at the mall at home, but why not hang on to the ones from the noodle shop near the Temple of Heaven in Beijing? Avoid being burdened by heavy, stupid stuff, or by trying to keep one of everything, and instead focus on things meaningful, things likely to evoke the sound, smell and taste of a treasured place far from home, never likely to be visited again but equally likely to be remembered for darn near forever.
Go to McDonald's
Really. Though some western travelers set out with a specific plan to avoid McDonald's, it can be a real window into a place in many ways. Do you think they have that 300 seat McDonald's just off Tiananmen Square just in case 300 hungry Americans drop by? No way, McD's is there for the locals and the blend of familiar stuff with local adjustments can open windows into a new culture.
And yes, we did buy a “McBeer” in a McDonald's in Vienna.
Watch the news in Chinese and see what you can figure out from the video, or see what the Simpsons sound like in French. How about Pokemon in its native Japanese (you will still not know exactly what a Pikachu is I'm afraid)? We've found that with our younger kids at least, it is easiest for them to understand differences in things they are most familiar with.
Wherever you are, people live there amongst the ancient ruins and Gothic cathedrals. Get to know a bit about them, those people, by looking through a department store, stopping in to a cafÃƒÆ’Ã†'Ãƒâ€š©, convenience store or video rental place.